The Museum of Innocence, By Orhan Pamuk trans Maureen Freely

The objects of affection

Since so much in Orhan Pamuk's sumptuously rich novel of love and loss in Istanbul turns on obsessive behaviour, let me confess some of my own. The "museum of innocence" his hero plans to open in memory of a grand, doomed love affair will actually exist. Turkey's Nobel laureate has, like his Kemal Basmaci, amassed a vast horde of trivia and trinkets from the city of his youth. He aims to put them on show in the very house he gives in this book to the family of Kemal's beloved, Füsun.

One night last November, as autumn downpours cleared to leave a pale moon shining over the Galata tower, I dived down the steep streets of Çukurcuma that fall towards the waters of the Bosphorus to find and gaze at the still-ramshackle corner property where, in his novel, so much hope and anguish slowly mature. The 1970s Çukurcuma that Pamuk conjures was a down-at-heel melange of old Italian and Levantine families, provincial migrants, students and bohemians. These days, it aptly hosts curio and antique shops.

Stretching over 30 years, but seldom straying far from a few Istanbul neighbourhoods, this is a tale of life-defining desire and devotion marked out in hair-clips and ashtrays, china dogs and ticket stubs, pumpkin seeds and ice-cream cones, salt-shakers and quince graters. Its loving, even relentless, attention to the "the consolation of objects" builds into an overwhelming tribute to "the power of things", which "inheres in the memories they gather up inside them".

Along the winding way, Pamuk summons to new life his home city 30 years ago, as it mourned its past and stumbled into its future. He exhibits all that near-hallucinatory gift for ambience and atmosphere that places him among the great urban novelists of any age. And again, he has Maureen Freely to thank for a gripping and sensitive translation that captures the sensuous plenitude of his finely embroidered prose.

We begin in 1975, with "the happiest moment of my life". In a family-owned flat that serves as their amorous hideaway, the 30-year-old Kemal - pleasure-seeking scion of a nouveau riche clan of entrepreneurs – ecstatically makes love with a poor "distant relation". Füsun's poise and grace first struck him as she worked in a boutique in the Basmacis' smart suburb of Nisantasi. She is just 18, her father a teacher and her mother a seamstress, but her respectability – so vital to a woman's fortunes in this still-repressive time and place, as we learn – already compromised by entering a beauty contest.

Besides, Kemal is engaged to Sibel, the ultimate suitable girl. Discreetly sexy, mildly "Westernised" in fashion and taste (another abiding theme), she figures as the solid match to gladden every heart in the "insular and intimate circle" of Istanbul's commercial elite.

Yet this final bachelor fling deepens into the love of a lifetime. As Kemal's engagement party at the Hilton looms – a superb set-piece on Pamuk's part, which includes a cameo role for his own "boring" family – he and Füsun make love 44 times amid the flat's dusty bric-à-brac. From her first lost earring, the signs and tokens of their love furnish a fetishism that will keep his desire aflame when this chronic cataloguer can no longer relish "the scent of her neck" with its "mixture of algae, sea, burnt caramel and children's biscuits".

With the party comes the crisis. He and Sibel separate after a last-gasp late -summer idyll – depicted, as ever, with magical intensity – in an old waterside mansion. Füsun, proud and hurt by the prospect of a dismal future as another downtrodden secret mistress, marries Feridun: an amiable nonentity who yearns to make it in the film business.

Yet Kemal never gives up hope. With the silent connivance of Füsun's parents, he becomes a near-nightly visitor to their home, lending support to Feridun's movie ambitions while savouring every glance, every word and - above all – every souvenir he can filch from Füsun's chaste company. These sections boast all the lavish, cumulative and hypnotic detail readers of Pamuk will know from My Name is Red or The Black Book - but they may at first try the patience of strangers to his work.

The whole of Istanbul becomes "a galaxy of signs that reminded me of her". Pamuk also unrolls some wonderfully subtle meditations on memory and time that make The Museum of Innocence his most accomplished homage yet to his mentor: Proust. And these nervous evenings of stilted chatter in front of the one-channel TV, as the German wall clock chimes and the canary, Lemon, chirps, also abound in the sad comedy of frustration and evasion.

Time and again, Kemal (or Pamuk) points to an imagined gulf between this politely hidebound household and the plain-speaking freedoms of a fantasy "West". Yet anyone who recalls the sweet suffocation of suburban Britain in the same era will feel utterly at home with Füsun's mum and dad. As always, great writing proves most universal at its most densely local. Indeed, when Aunt Nesibe fusses around this rich cuckoo in their snug nest ("If I made a spinach pastry, would you eat it?"), Pamuk fans from this ex-imperial power may feel that Alan Bennett has taken up residence beside the Bosphorus.

Drama rushes back when the sleazy glitz of the film world pulls Feridun away from his wife. Their distance reawakens Kemal's hope. External shocks – the terror gangs that plagued Istanbul in the late 1970s, the 1980 military coup – do impinge on the romance, but only as casual impediments. Divorce opens the road to a renewal of bliss. The first stage of a car trip to the West shows Pamuk's prose at its most splendidly sensual, but we sense that "a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences".

A rambling coda investigates the psychology of collecting as "a palliative for a pain", and even hauls in our novelist – "Orhan Bey" – as scribe of this gloriously sorry tale. At last, we grasp the meaning of the haunting early scene where young Kemal sees lambs slaughtered in poor city districts on the Feast of the Sacrifice, in memory of Abraham and Isaac. Culture began, the ritual implies, with substitution. The boy lived; the beast died. Now, in this mesmeric invocation of a passion and a place, memories and mementos must make up for all our absences and losses. Like Kemal, every lover - and every artist too - must learn to be "a shaman who can see the souls of things".

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate